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I’ve written before about how age is important to Koreans, and it affects the language one uses to speak to someone who is merely one year older or younger than oneself. Most of this stuff is a quaint custom, and it’s often very sweet to hear younger students refer to older students as “older brother” and “older sister”, without thereby according them any more respect than they might get in a British primary school.

When it comes to discussing the problems that this cultural phenomenon creates among adults, we can discuss simultaneously the attitude taken towards a difference in age and the attitude taken towards a difference in position in an institution’s hierarchy. In a Korean hierarchy, it is accepted that the interests of those further up will take precedence over the interests of those further down—and these interests can be petty, as we will see in my examples. In our school, the same manipulation that teachers employ to keep our pupils in line gets applied to the teachers themselves by those higher up in the hierarchy: respect flows upwards, but there is no respect for those lower down as being, again, autonomous human beings trying to do their jobs and also live their lives.

An elementary school is a particularly conservative environment, and I believe the relationship between the principal and vice-principal and the rest of the teaching staff of my school is a paradigm case of how bad things can get. I will give several examples which are common to schools across the country.

Firstly there is the issue of heating and cooling the school in the winter and summer. Because heating is only necessary for about four months of the year, and air-conditioning for perhaps two months, buildings in Korea are generally not centrally heating or cooled. Instead our classrooms and offices have heating and cooling units that convert electricity into hot and cool air. All these units are partially remotely controlled. We have a switch to turn them on and off, but whether we can use that switch it at the whim of the school’s management. And they set the minimum and maximum temperatures.

For reasons of national politics school budgets for heating and cooling are not high enough to just burn the air conditioning and heaters freely for those six months of the year in which they are useful. In fact, as I understand it, the electricity supply to my school is not sufficient to have them all turned on at once, though this might be a ruse or rumour. A lot could be said about Korean schools’ propensity to waste a lot of money on other things instead, but that’s not something I know enough about. What I want to focus on is, under these conditions of limited supply, how the school’s management and teachers interact with each other.

Firstly, there is no policy that gets consistently adhered to as to when we can use the heating and cooling. That means that we are constantly hitting the button to see if the heating or cooling will turn on, and then weighing up whether we want to spend political capital on calling the main office and asking them to turn it on for us. This is not the way that teachers who are supposedly on the same side (at least when it comes to handing out instant coffee—see the next post in this series) should be treating each other.

Secondly, heating and cooling is almost always unavailable after the pupils have gone home. We’re in school for around three hours longer than them, preparing our lessons for the next day. Focussing on the winter, into the afternoon things get colder and colder and it gets harder and harder to do one’s job effectively. Given the environmental situation of our planet, I support the notion that we should be wearing coats at work during the winter, and setting heating levels lower as a result. There is a limit to this. We find ourselves wearing hats and gloves and scarves, two pairs of socks, two pairs of trousers and using blankets, and we’re still cold while trying to do our jobs. And then we do incredibly energy-inefficient things like boiling a kettle and hugging it to keep warm, or running small space-heaters off the plug sockets, when the built-in unit could do the same for much less power (all forbidden, but we manage to get away with it). To put this into perspective, our classroom is down to 10 degrees this week, rising to 13 thanks to students’ body heat. Our office always feels at least two degrees colder.

In summary, there is no appreciation that more generous heating and cooling might result in pupils more able to learn, and teachers more able to teach them. Heating and cooling are seen as luxuries that we should try to avoid paying for, rather than things that allow us to do our work, like chairs and tables and computers. This betrays the fact that making the spending reports of people higher in the hierachy look good is more important than educating our pupils: that is, the interests of those higher up trample over those of people lower down. Teachers aren’t in a position to complain, so all that is needed is for the pupils to get just enough heating and cooling that their parents won’t complain too much.

The other case I’ve to discuss is the situation with requesting holiday dates in advance. Tenured teachers have all the school holidays off, and they only need come into school for a few days each holiday on a kind of rotation. I’m a contract worker, and I only get about four weeks off per year, and I have to get the vice-principal and principal’s signature in advance of taking those days. This is a signature that they are totally unwilling to give more than a month or so in advance of those holidays, and though I’ve always been lucky, in other schools there are countless tales of dates being changed at the last minute because of some whim of the school management. So plans that require booking things like plane tickets, especially expensive ones back to one’s home country, involve an element of risk: you might not gets the dates you want.

A typical story runs as follows. An English teacher is renewing their contract and wants to go home during the winter vacation. They need to book their flight several months in advance for it to be affordable, but they can only get a verbal confirmation of their choice of days until a month or so before. So they book their flight—it’s either book it then or don’t go, because of the cost—and then three weeks before they leave the vice-principal refuses to give his or her signature. Through the language barrier they get some explanation. The vice-principal wants to change the teacher’s holiday dates because they want to hold the English holiday classes in the last week of January rather than the first, because a few parents have requested this. I have heard of more trivial and arbitrary reasons than this. The English teacher explains about their non-refundable ticket. If they’re lucky it’ll be heeded. But in so many cases they will hear, “please understand our culture,” and get a smile of fake concern and pity, and then they’ll be left to get on with the holiday classes.

It’s in the (petty) interests of the vice-principal and principal not to commit to requested holiday dates in advance, because the English teacher is low in the hierarchy and so doesn’t need to be treated with any respect. It’s in their interests to retain the option of screwing them over, an option they might use in order to score some points with someone else, or just because they don’t want to take on the responsibility of maintaining some dates that have been committed to. Serious interests of the English teacher, such as going home to see family and friends when one is working abroad, are ridden right over.

It’s true that maintaining the rights of workers in the face of their managers has always been a battle in Western countries, too. We’ve more and more people working on zero-hours contracts who can be called into and out of work at the whim of their employers, and job security is something that fewer and fewer people have. However, so far as I can tell, the situation is worse here. When we’re actually in work, basic things like not shivering and being able to make holiday plans aren’t valued. The thought seems to be that we should just be grateful for having jobs. Since this is linked right into the hierarchy, it’s hard to see how it might ever change. As I will discuss in a future post, questioning the hierahical aspects of Korean culture is something that Koreans just don’t do. Every Korean who I have spoken to is utterly resigned to those above them having this attitude towards them, and, in one case of an acquaintance who is in a management position, haivng this attitude towards those below him. In this post I’ve given some solid examples that native-speaking English teachers across the country have experienced.

This is the third post in a series. First post; Next post